Thursday 23 November 2017

Pressure mounts on Cork from all fronts

Paul Kerrigan of Cork in action against Brian Looby of Waterford during the Munster GAA Football Senior Championship Quarter-Final match between Waterford and Cork at Fraher Field in Dungarvan, Co Waterford. Photo: Sportsfile
Paul Kerrigan of Cork in action against Brian Looby of Waterford during the Munster GAA Football Senior Championship Quarter-Final match between Waterford and Cork at Fraher Field in Dungarvan, Co Waterford. Photo: Sportsfile
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

It was flagged as a special occasion in Cork's illustrious history, but now there's a major doubt over whether it will happen at all as the Rebel County face up to the distinct possibility that their footballers are in an unstoppable tailspin.

Sunday, July 2 has been ringed for a long time on Leeside calendars as opening day for the 45,000-capacity redeveloped Páirc Uí Chaoímh, with Cork v Kerry in the Munster final as the glamour attraction.

A general view of Páirc Ui Chaoimh, Cork. Photo: Sportsfile
A general view of Páirc Ui Chaoimh, Cork. Photo: Sportsfile

Kerry are well fancied to keep their side of the bargain by beating Clare but there's trepidation in Cork that they could be torpedoed by Tipperary in Páirc Uí Rinn on Saturday evening.

Defeat would be a disaster for Cork. In addition to wrecking the Munster final plans, it would confirm the extent of the decline, which is already regarded as one of the steepest for a very long time.

A one-point win over Waterford - who finished sixth in Division 4, winning only two games - in the quarter-final provided further evidence that Cork have fallen so far down the pecking order that their All-Ireland success of seven years ago seems from another generation.

Systematic

Now, they are preparing for a clash with a Tipperary team that not only beat them in last year's Munster semi-final but later went on to reach the All-Ireland semi-final, where they lost to Mayo.

It's only the force of tradition that hoists Cork into the favourites' slot against opposition whose confidence is high after a progressive League run which earned them promotion from Division 3, followed by a title win.

Other than Kerry, no Munster county has beaten Cork in the Championship in successive years since Tipperary in 1939 and '40, underlining how the balance of power has operated in the province for more than three-quarters of a century.

Tipperary's systematic improvement in recent years has coincided with an alarming dip in Cork's fortunes. The decline gathered pace last year when, after being relegated from Division 1, they lost to Tipperary, followed by a failure to reach the All-Ireland quarter-final for only the second time in 12 seasons.

The attempt to make a quick return to Division 1 this year came up short as they finished fourth in Division 2, three points adrift of the promotion zone.

They now head into the Championship without having had a summer win over Division 1 opposition since beating Kerry in the 2012 Munster semi-final.

Incredibly, their success over Down in the previous year's qualifiers was their only other win over Division 1 opposition since winning the 2010 All-Ireland final.

Nobody could possibly have envisaged the demise of the Cork empire when Graham Canty hoisted the Sam Maguire Cup seven years ago.

Indeed, it was widely predicted that after battling so hard to reach top spot over previous years, the squad would flourish in their new status as champions. The reverse has been the case.

The loss of altitude was gradual for a number of years, before accelerating quickly in recent seasons.

Manager, Brian Cuthbert resigned in 2015 after just two years in charge, which is unusual in Cork. Previous managers Conor Counihan, Larry Tompkins and Billy Morgan completed 28 years between them but Cuthbert decided that he had enough after two difficult seasons.

He was replaced by Peadar Healy, a choice that surprised many on Leeside.

Fortunes have dipped further since then, resulting in a confidence crisis which left Cork vulnerable against Waterford.

Donncha O'Connor, who made a big impression after coming on as sub, admitted afterwards that the Rebels had serious doubts in the course of that game.

"It creeps into everyone's mind - you always think of something negative. But you can't dwell on it," he said.

The big mystery is why Cork are failing to make more of their U-21 successes, having won six of the last 10 Munster titles. Meanwhile, Tipperary, who won only two titles in the same period, have improved substantially, gathering real momentum under Liam Kearns last year.

Now, he takes his side to Cork, aiming to add to Rebel woes. Tipp have talked a lot about their absentee list in recent times, one that has increased following the suspension of goalkeeper Evan Comerford, but that may be a ploy to lure Cork into believing they are not as strong as last year.

The big question is whether Cork can improve enough to beat the Premier crew and book a place in the Munster final. The prospect of playing in a brand-new Páirc Uí Chaoímh on opening day should be a mighty incentive for a heavily criticised Cork squad but are they good enough to make it count?

Their fate is being closely monitored at county board level too as the loss of a lucrative Munster final would bring a heavy financial hit at a time when funds are under stress after the massive building programme.

Irish Independent

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